Turkey’s New Culinary Delights

Five years ago Tangor Tan, a Turkish anthropology graduate with a woolly beard and a passion for food, embarked on a mission to collect and document the most authentic ingredients his country had to offer. He traveled 108,000 kilometers, visited 374 villages, accepted 7,045 cups of tea, and sampled 950 different cheeses, 550 olive oils, and 310 types of honey. Sponsored—and at times accompanied—by half-Finnish, half-Turkish chef Mehmet Gürs, Tan climbed to the top of Mount Ararat “to eat the wild flowers,” scoured the rugged Black Sea coastline for anchovies, and tramped the fertile fields flanking the ancient Asia Minor cities of Ephesus and Pergamon, where wild herbs, olives, and tomatoes grow in abundance.

Tan and Gurs collected more than 5,000 products (and the stories behind them) on their travels, including rare treasures like aged goat’s cheese made by an 85-year-old man in Izmir and olives the color of raw artichoke from Hatay province in the southeast. Much of what they found had never before made it beyond the bounds of their respective villages. Each was sent to a laboratory in Istanbul set up especially for the project to be analyzed, documented, and then—if the item was exceptional—integrated into the nightly degustation menu at Mikla, Gürs’s celebrated fine-dining restaurant in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district.

The results, now being assembled into a book, are all part of Gürs’s grand plan to put Turkey’s bountiful pantry back on the world map. “Turkey has an incredibly rich cuisine. It was the cradle of civilization, so many cultures passed through here. Yet what the world knows is kebab,” says Gürs, a tall and tattooed 45-year-old with that Scandinavian style of can-do confidence.

Gürs has been pushing the envelope for Turkish products since 2007, when I first met him. Back then, Mikla, a glamorous space atop the Marmara Pera Hotel with bare wooden tables huddled around a glass kitchen and jaw-dropping views of the Golden Horn through floor-to-ceiling windows, served modern French food with mostly Turkish ingredients, plus the odd luxury import like foie gras or caviar. These days, Mikla’s kitchen uses only homegrown ingredients in its strictly Turkish dishes, like lakerda, a soft and fatty fillet of bonito pickled in salt and raki and then mixed with sour yogurt and cucumber. Black Sea anchovies—hamsi—are flattened onto wafer-thin slices of bread, fried in butter, and served with a piquant lemon sauce. Salted and dried beef tenderloin is teamed with hummus and a pistachio paste from Gaziantep in the southeast, among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. A gutsy raw goat’s cheese that tickles the tongue is drizzled with a honey that tastes like almonds.

Gürs calls his cuisine New Anatolian, and it’s fast gathering a following. Perhaps it’s prompted by the success of Tan’s project and the opportunities it presents for new tastes and textures. Perhaps it’s being spurred by the indigenous-ingredient trend that is sweeping countries like Peru, Sweden, and now Brazil. Or perhaps because of both, a clutch of young, energetic Turkish chefs have come to the fore, eager to take their food to the next level.

“It’s still Turkish cuisine, just redefined,” says Maksut Askar, the affable TV chef and owner of Neolokal, a newly opened restaurant inside nearby Karaköy’s contemporary art museum and research space, Salt Galata. “Turkish people always romanticize about going back to the village, back to the farm, back to the seaside. We know it’s an optimistic ideal that probably won’t happen, so instead we bring the flavors of their childhood back to them, but in a modern form.”

Focusing on Turkish products that the Italy-based Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity has included on its Ark of Taste list of vulnerable and endangered heritage foods, Askar’s cooking puts a contemporary twist on old recipes. Içli köfte, for instance, is a traditional dish from Askar’s hometown of Iskenderun that stuffs meat into pockets of Siyez bulgur, ancient wheat from the Kastamonu area of northern Anatolia; Askar finesses it for Neolokal’s menu by baking bulgur disks in the oven before stacking them with meat, walnuts, pine nuts, parsley, black pepper, and allspice, drizzled with burnt yogurt and olive oil. Another standout is the Divle cave-aged cheese served for dessert. Traditionally made from the milk of the rare red-fleeced Karaman sheep that feed on mountain pastures in southwest Anatolia, this cheese is stored in a 300-year-old aquifer to reach maturity and develop its strong dirty-sock smell.

“Anatolian food has the potential to be big internationally,” Askar says. “We have everything we need to make it happen: culture, produce, seasons, and a lot of talented young chefs.”

Üryan Dogmus and Cihan Kipçak agree. The duo spins seasonal tastes and ingredients with modern kitchen gadgetry to create “avant-garde Turkish cuisine” at their elegant restaurant, Gile, in Istanbul’s Besiktas district. The nightly degustation menu is a feat to finish; the eight big courses matched with generous servings of local wines pose a challenge for waistlines and sobriety levels both. But Dogmus and Kipçak are pushing boundaries aside from just quantity, churning out highly complex dishes like sac böregi—wild garlic in paper-thin pastry pockets with an extraordinary combination of clay-pot cheese from Cappadocia and pine honey from Marmaris. Paired with fluffy lemon potatoes, their slow-cooked rock bass with charred leak is another delight, while the 41-hour cooked lamb shoulder, served with eggplant puree, licorice paste, and a super-pungent kasar cheese made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk, hits a perfect note.

I discover turkey’s most promising new restaurant on the Aegean coast, amid the pine and almond trees that dot the rolling hills of the Çesme Peninsula, east of Izmir. Alancha is the ambitious brainchild of Kemal Demirasal, a Bosnian Turk who moved here to pursue a career as a professional windsurfer. Besotted by the extraordinary wealth of Çesme’s seafood and produce, Demirasal taught himself to cook, later opening a modern Mediterranean restaurant called Barbun amid the quaint cobbled streets of Alaçati, a Greek-built village of old stone houses that the Istanbul jet-set has made its summer escape. But unexcited by the prospect of “having to cook pasta for the rest of my life,” Demirasal last year opened Alancha, a slick 30-seat restaurant on a hillock in central Alaçati.

Drawing on wild herbs foraged from hilltop forests, tart cheeses made from hardy mountain goats, nutty olive oils from trees more than 1,000 years old, and an abundance of fish from the cobalt-blue waters of the Aegean, Demir-asal has created a menu that cleverly divulges the history of Anatolia in its two nightly degustations. If you think that sounds esoteric, you’re right, but eating here is a profound history lesson on this corner of the world.

My dinner menu at Alancha is titled the Great Migration, and it unfolds as a culinary journey through Anatolia and its ancient past. The first dish, Seeds of Civilization, mixes barley, chickpeas, mint, and yogurt—foodstuffs that enabled early Anatolians to make the transition from hunters and gatherers to agriculturalists millennia ago. Next comes Goddess of Wisdom, a Greek salad of roasted cherry tomato halves spiced with lemon thyme, thin slices of pealed cucumber, creamy feta rounds, grilled baby onions, a fern-green olive extract, and—of course—olives, thought to have been brought to Çesme by the Greeks. Harking back to the era of the Minoans, who came to Çesme from Crete, is a presentation of octopus and fish with zucchini and yogurt. Nestled in a custom-made porcelain dish that mimics the look of marble, it’s perfectly balanced and almost too beautiful to eat.

All these morsels are irresistible, but the most delicious dish on the menu is Empire Built on Salt. A tribute to the Phoenicians and their contribution to the local salt trade, it involves a whole baked sea bass, filleted tableside and served with tart, semi-fermented sea leaves.

Equally as impressive as Alancha’s food is the restaurant’s lack of pretension. There are no airs or graces here, where tables are bare wood; cutlery comes in a box not even suggesting what diners should use with which dish; the staff are relaxed and chatty; and wine is matched with the meal, not each course, so you can drink what you want, when you want.

For my meal sommelier Can Bayrasa chooses two remarkable Turkish wines, an industry that is moving hand-in-hand with the culinary revival. The first is a herbaceous Riesling from Kirklareli province, whose eponymous capital is known in neighboring Bulgaria as Lozengrad, or the “city of vines”; and later, a jammy, full-bodied Nero d’Avola-Karasi red from local Urla Winery that blends a Sicilian grape with one endemic to the Çesme Peninsula.

I had, in fact, spent that afternoon with Demirasal at Urla Winery, set on a 2,000-hectare property inland from the namesake seaside village of Urla. Two millennia ago, Çesme was one of the biggest and most prestigious wine-producing regions in the Mediterranean. The practice fell into obscurity when Turkey became a republic in the 1920s, and Çesme’s Greek population, who had largely been responsible for the region’s viticulture, left. A few years ago, Urla’s owner, Can Ortabas, struck upon the idea of reviving these endemic wine grapes after stumbling over the remnants of an old terrace and ancient clay amphorae, or kvevri, dating back to Çesme’s viticulture heyday. Now, Urla comprises a nursery for endangered plants, a few hundred hectares of vines, a winery, and a small hotel and tasting room that run almost entirely on solar energy.

“It’s a walk in the dark with Turkish grape varieties,” says Ortabas with a little trepidation. “Not only were the old grape varieties lost, but the culture disappeared too.” But things are on the way up; Decanter magazine recently awarded Urla’s Nero d’Avola-Karasi a “best forgotten grape” award.

The next morning, Demirasal picks me up from my hotel for a visit to the Saturday farmer’s market, where he collects most of the ingredients for Alancha and Barbun. The bazaar is in full swing: men, women, kids, and cats bustle through a walkway piled on both sides with mottled heirloom eggplants, bunches of fresh-picked arugula, heads of kohlrabi as big as footballs, and baby zucchini with their flowers still intact. One stall sells 15 types of olives; another boasts twice that number of local cheeses. There are piles of fresh and dried wild herbs from the mountains tied together with twine, and edible seaweeds foraged from the seashore that morning.

We stop off at Refik’s Place, a courtyard flanked by stone walls with wooden chairs and tables shaded by giant fig trees. We order strong red tea, gözleme (piping-hot flatbread filled with fresh spinach), and a salad of plump heirloom tomatoes and baby cucumbers doused in olive oil. With such an abundance of extraordinary produce and rich food culture, I wonder not if, but when, Turkey is going to have its culinary day in the sun. Demirasal is unequivocal. “This is Turkey’s time now,” he says, stabbing at a sunflower-yellow tomato in his salad. “We’re going to put the country back on the food map.”

Where to stay

Housed in a 1930s former tobacco factory on Istanbul’s Besiktas waterfront, the Shangri-La Bosphorus (Hayrettin Iskelesi Sokak; 90-212/275-8888; doubles from US$390) is the city’s latest luxury digs, with 186 silk-paneled guest rooms, a Chi spa, and a posh Cantonese restaurant.

In Alaçati, an hour’s drive east of Izmir (itself a 60-minute flight from Istanbul), check into the Alavya (3005 Sokak No. 6; 90-232/716-6632; doubles from US$245). The converted cluster of six village houses features a candy-striped pool, gardens, and large rooms—request one with a balcony.

Where to eat

On the rooftop of Istanbul’s fashionable Marmara Pera Hotel, Mikla (15 Mesrutiyet Caddesi; 90-212/293-5656) sets the stage for Mehmet Gürs’s New Anatolian cuisine; other highlights include superb city views and a bar fashioned from wooden rail sleepers. Nearby, Gile (Sair Nedim Caddesi, Akaretler; 90-212/327-1166) is renowned for the complexity—and generous portions—of its degustation menu. After exploring the galleries at art institute Salt Galata, stop in at Neolokal (11 Bankalar Caddesi, Karaköy) for chef Maksut Aska’s modern take on traditional dishes and ingredients. Farther afield in Alaçati, taste your way through the region’s history with the Great Migration menu at Alancha (1036 Sokak No. 1; 90-232/716-8307), best paired with locally produced wines from Urla Winery.



This article appeared in the October/ November 2014 issue of DestinAsian Magazine.